My dearest friend,
I shall not be attending school today because a beautiful death takes time to arrange. No doubt Reverend Hughes will have something to say about this, but I shall not be lectured. I shall be dead. The Reverend Daddy’s views on truancy do not trouble me. Neither do his views on anything else. Only death holds power over me now. May the angels judge justly those whom I leave behind. May their hearts weep as the heavens open for the dying soft voice of this lost daughter. May God have mercy upon me in death as he never did in life.
Remember me as your faithful,
Lady Ophelia Juliet de Shallot
Flora’s death was not going the way she had hoped. To begin with, the cherry blossoms refused to co-operate. She wanted them to fall gracefully across the surface of the river like pink petal teardrops. They should surround her corpse as it drifted toward the village where her tragic drowning could create maximum impact when discovered by a charming shepherd boy with golden curls who would wade into the water and press her be-flowered body to his lean, muscular chest and mourn the cruel passing of so lovely a maiden.
That was the plan at least, but it was simply not working. The pretty and perfectly pink blossoms clung stubbornly to the tree over-hanging the east bank of Burrs Water, not even releasing their grip after Flora vigorously shook several branches. Only a handful of browning, half-rotted petals fell to the rain-soaked ground, after which they were far too foul to be useful.
Undaunted, Flora fingered the daisy and rosemary chain crowning her coppery locks. Ideally they would be woven through, but her hair grew stubbornly straight and the tiny flowers kept sliding out. She lifted her full skirts admiring the beaded pattern of violets on the layers of white silk fabric then fanned them out on either side until she was certain she resembled some variety of lace-trimmed water lily. Slowly, so as not to disturb the careful arrangement of dress and hair and without dropping the posy of bluebells, rue and more rosemary clutched in one clenched fist or the pair of significant books in her other, Flora waded into the water.
Instantly she flinched. Sharp stones punctured the tender flesh of her bare feet. Courage, Lady Ophelia. After a few moments the icy temperature of the river numbed her vulnerable skin. Then all she could think about was the cold. Did you believe this wouldn’t be painful? It’s death. Death hurts. She grasped the next tier of her dress, lifting it higher. Doubtlessly the amount of leg revealed would scandalise any lesser (or normal) young lady. Flora revelled in the rebellion of it—a final rebellion. She sucked in the chilly spring dawn through chattering teeth before shuffling further out into the very cold indeed river.
‘My death cannot possibly offer more pain than my life,’ Flora intoned.
For several moments, Floretta Deliverance Hughes stood frozen in the middle of Burrs Water eyes tightly closed, face lifted to heaven. Nothing happened. Her brows knitted. Still nothing happened. Her eyes blinked open to the pale green undersides of willow leaves, the bobbing pink cherry blossoms and the hazy purple dawn. It would be another clear and glorious spring day. Another day with no rain… No rain for some time now…
Flora looked down. Burrs Water rippled jovially over her ankles, bubbled up to tickle the gooseflesh on her legs, but rose no further. The river wasn’t deep enough. Not deep enough to carry her gracefully along its current—not even deep enough to drown her. Perhaps, if she plunged in face-down she might be able to— No! Drowning face down was artistically unacceptable. Sigh.
How very disappointing. First the cherry blossoms ruined her aesthetics and now the river mocked her with its drought. Even the weather seemed opposed to aiding her death. Despite an atmospheric mist blanketing the Vale of Burr, dawn promised a morning of clear, blue sunshine. Sunshine! What simple person would commit suicide on such a beautifully blue spring morning? Not this one.
Quite, quite disappointing. No use going through all the business of drowning if Flora could not do it beautifully. Were there any golden-haired shepherd boys living in Burly-the-Wath anyway? None came to mind.
Flora sighed again. It was not to be. Not like this. Hiking up her heavy skirts, she waddled with difficulty out of the river and up the steep grassy river bank after discarding her small bouquet into the river. With disgust she noted how perfectly the shallow current carried along the little indigo flowers and woody green spikes of rosemary. She laid a leather-bound copy of Hamlet and a cloth-covered Poems of Tennyson on a woollen cloak spread out along the grass. Flora had not been able to decide which volume should be discovered clutched against her lifeless bosom so she brought both. After wiping her legs and feet dry on the cloak, she gathered a sheaf of papers tied with a skinny length of crimson ribbon and made notes on her latest experiment in “Les Beaux Arts Macabre”.
Post Script. The death waiting at my door shall have to wait a while longer. It shall not happen today, my dearest friend. Your Lady Ophelia Juliet de Shallot lives to despair another morrow. Attempt the fifth at a beautiful death foiled by drought, sunshine, floral awkwardness and lack of handsome shepherd. Aesthetic note: bluebells more accommodating than cherry blossoms.
Flora sulked and shivered at the foot of the unobliging cherry tree along the bank of the corpseless river. A wasted morning, but lessons had been learned. Perhaps she should wait for autumn to make another attempt. Burrs Water would be bursting its banks in October. Beneath the Post Script, Flora scribbled:
“Autumn is the time for death when the waters freely flow, the leaves all lose their will to survive and all the earth braces itself for winter’s death…” She scratched out her second use of the word “death” and replaced it with “chill”. Then, after a moment added “which all shall kill”. Flora grimaced at her terrible use of meter and forced rhyme. Quite, quite disappointing. Anyone styling herself as “Lady Ophelia Juliet de Shallot” should have better mastery of literary forms really. Not that it mattered. There was no “dearest friend” regardless. No one would ever read these. No would care what she wrote or how she died or even if she even lived at all.
Pointless. Disappointing. Futile. That is the true story of my life. Those are the only words I truly need. Flora thought but did not document these final musings. They were far too bleak even for Lady Ophelia Juliet de Shallot.
Floretta Deliverance Hughes lay back on the woollen cloak and let despair engulf her as the river would not. In this she was once again thwarted by charming weather. The morning sun shone brightly through the branches of the flowering cherry tree making lacy dappled patterns on the grassy banks, the bubbling river and the lacy layers of Flora’s voluminous dress. She sighed a third time. All the forces of God and man and nature are against me.
Ah, well. The day was early still. If she hurried she might be able to get to school on time thus avoiding a tiresome tirade from The Reverend Daddy. First she would need to deconstruct her non-crime scene. She removed the daisy-rosemary crown and wrapped it around her bound papers, her Tennyson and her copy of Hamlet Gertrude should have been specific in her description of Ophelia’s suicide. Less poetic, more instructive.
Attire was going to prove difficult. Flora had not anticipated the need to return from the scene of her suicide. She crept out of the house just before dawn, wool cloak firmly wrapped about her so the white gown would not attract unwanted attention, though she did admire the effect of the full moonlight which made the silk glow silver beneath its violet bead pattern. Flora gave attention to every aesthetic aspect of death. Her deceased mother’s wedding dress seemed perfect from a symbolic point of view. Practical as well—the padded puffed sleeves alone would have soaked up the entire river and dragged her swiftly into Burrs Water’s deathly depths. If only Burrs Water had any depths.
Practical for drowning perhaps but not practical for walking through the surrounding grove of trees, over several fields and across bordering hedgerows. Even trickier would be making her way home without being spotted by someone tending flocks or fields. This included most everyone in Burly-the-Wath. “Plebeian breeders of stench and stupidity,” according to The Reverend Daddy. “Odd words coming from a Shepherd of Men,” Flora’s eldest sister Rose Prudence once retorted, and not out of his hearing. Rosie was like that. Middle sister Lillian Chaste would sooner go mute than criticise father. And Flora…what Flora said never mattered to anyone.
Fortunately, the vicar’s youngest daughter knew many secret paths and so managed to avoid detection, though the return journey took her twice as long. By the time Flora approached the imposing iron gates and close-planted sheltering trees of the vicarage, her fingers had cramped with cold and the effort of holding up the hefty layers of skirt. She hadn’t bothered with petticoat or under things or even shoes—only a nightdress and mother’s gown. En route from the river, Flora’s legs and feet collected grasses and flowers and all manner of countryside detritus. The wedding dress survived mostly unscathed, though Flora had at one point nearly pulled it all the way over her head to protect the fine fabric. She would hate to ruin her most precious death accessory.
Shoving open the front door, Flora deposited her cloak on the threshold ignoring the obvious pegs then flung her collection of books and papers, diary included, through the open doorway of The Reverend Daddy’s library. If he should pick it up and read it, so much the better. But she knew he would not. He’d step around it as if it didn’t exist until Priss tidied it all. By the end of the day each discarded item would magically appear neatly arranged in Flora’s room.
Mother’s wedding dress might be harder to ignore. Flora pulled it off over her head—no need to fuss with multitudinous buttons, the frock was three sizes too large. Though she was taller than Mother had been—taller than most fifteen-year-old girls, a misfortune her sisters never hesitated to remark upon. And skinny. “You’re so lucky to never need corsets, Flora,’ Lilli often insulted, “Gowns hang off you as if you aren’t even there.” She would always say this whilst smugly admiring her own plump figure. Cow.
Flora draped mother’s dress across the main staircase where no one could fail to miss it. She considered removing her shift as well—perhaps knotting it about the banister and walking her tall, skinny naked self down the hall to her room, but she thought better of it. The Reverend Daddy might ignore obvious attempts at suicide but blatant impropriety was sure to catch his attention. Flora was already depressed enough.
Wet and muddy footprints traced a clear route from the front door to the sisters’ shared bedroom. She made no attempt to conceal her presence from the waking house. Why bother? Flora learned long ago the pointlessness of caution. No one noticed her efforts at stealth. No one confronted her violations of normal conduct. No one noticed her at all. No one ever did. She was no one to everyone.
Floretta Deliverance Hughes lived her life as a ghost. The tall and skinny and perpetually ignored spectre at every feast. This was only appropriate really. “I entered the world on a wave of death,” she had once written in her diary. “Last nail in the coffin of my parent’s dream.” Their “dream” being a male heir to inherit the family name and wealth. One daughter was acceptable, two were regrettable, but three daughters and no son… That was tragic. The Hughes family had failed.
According to The Reverend Daddy, failures are best forgotten. “If we fail, we move on. We do not look back, but keep our eyes firmly fixed on the future.” But there would never be a future son for Reverend Hughes. Mother died one month after giving birth to her third, final daughter. Thus Flora was the failure her family tried to forget.
“I live a haunted life.”
In an effort to transcend this grim existence Flora filled pages of her diary with mournful poems, most of which were plagiarised from Tennyson, Shelley or Rossetti. Days spent loitering in fields of wildflowers hoping some wild artist might find her and paint her proved to be days wasted. Hopeful wanderings through the high and private wheat fields of the Vale of Burr on the off-chance a rakish stable boy might feel the urge to ruin her reputation came to naught. The closest thing to handsome stable boy in Burly-the-Wath was the blacksmith’s son Otto. Unfortunately, whilst he was large and lovely, Otto was no rake. “Though he may have farm equipment for brains,” Flora witticised.
In light of all this, death seemed the best option. She could wait for child birth to kill her as it had her mother, but there was no guarantee of this and it seemed like a very painful and lengthy process. So Floretta took matters into her own hands. Regrettably, Flora’s hands, though sensitive to the artistry of tableau, were far from expert in the ways of death.
In the vicarage cellar, a close approximation to the Capulet family crypt, Flora attempted to thrust a dagger though her breast in the manner of Juliet, only to be interrupted by Priss who needed the best kitchen knife to carve Sunday roast. At harvest time, she hung herself in the barn rafters by her own christening gown, which only tore the fabric and had not been long enough regardless. Death by starvation had been foiled by Tilly’s Christmas cake. Attempts to contract consumption by stalking anyone with a cough, drinking large quantities of milk then avoiding sunlight simply did not work at all. And now Ophelia’s drowning scene… Sigh.
Flora brooded on these failures as she dressed numbly for school. She ignored the giggling banter between her sisters who laced each other’s stays in preparation for their day of utter uselessness. “If we fail, we move on. We do not look back, but keep our eyes firmly fixed on the future.” Poison would be the next experiment. Apple stones allegedly contained cyanide. How many would she need to consume? Visions of her limp body dressed in a school pinafore discovered beneath the orchard behind St Becket’s brought a rare smile to Flora’s gaunt face.
From the shared bedroom window she could see St Becket’s school, its stark black and white wattle and daub contrasted with most of the grey stone buildings in of the village. Beyond it, the high peaks of Grimsrigg Fell protectively embraced the Vale of Burr.
Such high peaks…so very, very high.
Flora grinned. A dramatic leap off the rocky edge of a mist-shrouded moor seemed an attractive way to die. Difficult to botch as well. All she would have to do is fall.
“A truly beautiful death. Beaux Arts Macabre! I’ll need to find something red for the occasion. A red girl flying through the air. How could anyone possibly ignore that?”